What one era considers shocking may seem routine in another. Consider "You Can't Take It With You," which opened on Broadway almost 66 years ago and is director Joyce Maltby's current attraction at Hawaii Pacific University.
Talented HPU cast
transcends dated play
By John Berger
Playwrights Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman must have intended the tight-knit Sycamore family to seem shockingly eccentric, and maybe average Americans thought they were back in 1936. However, despite the best efforts of Maltby's talented ensemble, the Sycamores just don't seem all that eccentric or zany.
Or is it just me? Grandpa Vanderhof has snakes for pets and enjoys visiting the zoo and attending commencement ceremonies. His daughter, Penelope Sycamore, has been writing (and not finishing) plays ever since a typewriter was delivered by mistake eight years ago. Her husband, Paul, manufactures fireworks in the basement with the help of Mr. De Pinna, a family friend. The Sycamores' daughter, Essie, dances and makes candy in the kitchen and is blissfully oblivious to the fact that she has no talent or aptitude as a ballerina. Essie's husband. Ed, plays the xylophone and enjoys printing things -- anything, even samples of communist propaganda.
The Sycamores' other daughter, Alice, is the exception. She has a conventional 8-to-5 job on Wall Street and is head-over-heels in love with company vice-president Tony Kirby, son and heir apparent of the owner.
Hart and Kaufman give each of the Sycamore clan room to establish their individual shticks and then get into the issue at hand: Can Alice and Tony build a future together, or will his wealthy and presumably conservative parents take one look at her family and squelch the relationship?
Patrick Dennis and Gloria Upson face a similar dilemma in "Mame," only to run afoul of his eccentric and manipulative aunt. Alice and Tony fare differently, and if the outcome seems barely more believable, it feels more satisfying and truer to the playwrights' underlying premise.
Plot aside, there are some standout performances here. Start with Marisol Suarez, a fresh face on the HPU stage, who gives a captivating star-quality performance in the difficult and demanding role of Alice. Suarez's eyes become windows into Alice's soul and her characterization soon engages our empathy.
HPU regular Jim Tharp reprises his usual warm and funny stage persona to excellent effect as Grandpa Vanderhof, a man who quit his job more than 30 years ago to spend time doing as he pleases.
Grandpa amassed enough wealth to allow him to live off interest and dividend payments; Tharp's funniest low-key comic work comes in the scene where Grandpa locks horns with an IRS agent, played by John Mussack, who is hilarious in a small but important role.
John Hunt (Mr. Kirby) and Virginia Jones (Mrs. Kirby) likewise deliver effective one-two performances in a later scene-within-a-scene. The Kirbys arrive for dinner at the Sycamore residence a day earlier than expected and find every member of the family behaving at their eccentric best -- or worst.
Larry Bialock (Kolenkhov) toys with excess but never loses control as Essie's expatriate Russian ballet instructor (and sometime wrestling aficionado). Kolenkhov is a refugee from 1930s Russia, and Bialock brings out the man's zest for life and understandable pessimism in equal measure.
HPU regular Becky Maltby, director Maltby's daughter, makes her fourth consecutive appearance in an HPU production one of her most appealing. She seems to be a natural at physical comedy and outdoes herself as the hapless would-be ballerina.
Connie Ditch (Penelope), Peter Bunn (Paul) and Harold Burger (De Pinna) provide the foundation for most of the ensemble work while shining as quirky characters as well. Ditch has great material to work with Act II and handles it beautifully.
Louise South (Gay) adds another fine three-dimensional comic performance in Act II as the alcoholic actress. Todd Middleton portrays earnest Tony Kirby. Winston Earle (Donald), Jessica Hawkins (Rheba), Jan McGrath (Olga) and Luis Valdespino (Ed) do competent work in smaller character roles. Ryan Clothier and Levingston D. Hedges complete the cast as anonymous G-Men.
Director Maltby's productions are known for the high standards of the tech crew. This one is no exception, and Paul Guncheon (set design), Peggy Crock (costumes), Jason Taglianetti (sound design) and Doug Scheer (properties design) share credit for another job well done.
No matter the passage of time, "You Can't Take It With You" is quiet but satisfying entertainment.
Presented by Hawaii Pacific University
'You Can't Take It With You'
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 4 p.m. Sundays through May 5
Where: HPU Theater, 45-045 Kamehameha Highway
Cost: $14 general; $10 for seniors, military and students; $5 HPU students
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